Angelo Musco: Corporeal Worlds

© Angelo Musco – detail from ‘Tehom’ 2010

A search for silence, centrality, and monumental solemnity… acceptance and awareness of one’s own being.


Nothing quite prepares you for the scale and elaboration of Angelo Musco’s creations. The images themselves are vast. And while the subjects are often quite simple – a flower, a feather, the undulations of a rock face, the swirl of water – their construction is not. For each image is assembled from thousands of naked human bodies arching and twisting, reaching and embracing, across a panoramic field of view.

When I first saw this work it brought to mind the famous etching that appears as the frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’. Created by Abraham Bosse in 1651, it shows the monarch as a giant figures made up of the many bodies of his subjects. It illustrates Hobbes’ thesis that without absolute leadership life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. It did not matter that such leadership might be good or bad, because, in his view, a despot was preferable to the chaos of individuals acting of their own volition.

I mention this because Angelo Musco’s images suggest the mirror opposite of such a point of view. Each is a visual metaphor for connection, collaboration, and empathic trust. The figures, while naked, do not appear vulnerable but liberated. Even when they are wrapped around each other, the sense is one of mutuality rather than constraint. These are images quite outside of a real-world context. Pure visual ideas made possible through a spirit of common purpose and committed collaboration shared by the artist and the volunteers whose bodies come together to create the forms and flows of each artwork.

In this interview we discuss a selection of projects that map the development of Angelo Musco’s ideas across a seventeen-year arc. An arc that describes a journey from natural history through myth and legend to the personal history of the artist himself. To significant others and to the scars that write on the body and on the psyche the unique story of a life. A story, nonetheless, conveyed through the bodily expression of the many. The individual reflected in the collective through an act of connection that affirms we are never alone.

Alasdair Foster

© Angelo Musco – detail from ‘Murmek’ 2007


What was it that first inspired you to use the human body en masse in your creative work?

I was born with a condition called Erb’s palsy, a tearing of the nerves of the neck and shoulder. This required a lot of physical therapy. Consciously and unconsciously, it drew my focus to the body. While I began as a painter, I was moving into photography. Initially I was working in analogue, which was complicated because I’d had to take the film to be developed and then scan the images into the computer in order to work with them. In a way, digital photography saved my sanity because it simplified the process, allowing my visual language of the nude to evolve. I was interested in the power of aggregation, undertaking large-scale nude photoshoots. And this, in turn, engendered a sense of community with the volunteers who modelled for me as we worked together in a shared creative process.

[Upper Left] © Angelo Musco ‘Alveo’ 2006
[Other Images] © Angelo Musco – details from ‘Alveo’ 2006

In ‘Alveo’ and ‘Murmek’ you draw on ideas of the beehive and the anthill, the homes of two famously social creatures. How did those projects begin?

My early research revolved around containers of life while also exploring concepts of nutrition and the nurturing of young. ‘Alveo’ has a honeyed, sensual feeling with a colony of larva cocooned in the perfection of the hexagonal comb. ‘Murmek’ is more constrained as the ant colony is carved into bedrock, but what a wonder of highly organised channels, passageways, and tunnels. This work points to a harshness and the challenges of survival, and yet there is security within the colony as the adult community nurtures and cares for those in the larval stage. In bringing both pieces together, I was able to explore the social organisation and interdependency within these communities and the way in which very different natural architectures can withstand challenges and ensure survival by working together and sharing resources. I hope that the work underscores the power of the community and the importance of collaboration and cooperation in both natural and human societies.

© Angelo Musco ‘Tehom’ 2010

What was the concept for ‘Tehom’?

Given my interest in the earliest stages of life, it felt natural to explore amniotic fluid and water. This led me to research marine ecosystems. In this work, the bodies appear like schools of fish suggesting a socially ordered community. The word Tehom is from the Book of Genesis and refers to a deep abyss of primordial water – vast and chaotic before God brought order to it in the act of creation. In ‘Alveo’ and ‘Murmek’ there are infrastructures (honeycombs, subterranean nests), but in ‘Tehom’ the bodies are free. Any sense of structure is formed wholly from human bodies moving in unison.

The central work in this series is forty-eight feet wide and twelve feet high [approximately 14.6.x 3.6 metres]. How do you go about creating such a mammoth work?

I start with an idea and then begin researching. If the idea develops into a fuller concept, I make templates of the elements I will require to build the final image, which then inform the way the figures are grouped when shooting. For ‘Tehom’ it was necessary to experiment with small groups of models in a swimming pool; to make mistakes and test ideas in advance so that I could clarify in my own mind what I need to photograph.

I knew I wanted to create something monumental for the central piece. Given one cannot print a single image on photo paper at the size I required, it was necessary to print it in sections. ‘Tehom’ breaks down to multiple panels four feet by four feet and eight feet by four feet [approximately 1.2 x 1.2 metres and 2.4 x 1.2 metres], which fit together in a seamless matrix. I made a short video that shows the piece being uncrated and installed.

© Angelo Musco – details from ‘Tehom’ 2010

Who are the people in your images?

The models are all volunteers. The only requirement is that they feel fit enough to hold the positions and poses, which involve getting up and down off the floor and can often require them to support the bodies of others. These photoshoots are rigorous, and I don’t want anyone hurting themselves.

How do you go about choreographing the groups that you will later build into these complex, highly detailed images?

Before a big photoshoot, my assistant and I analyse the image we are constructing and break it down into the building blocks we’ll need: strands of aligned bodies, broader rows, rounded shapes, tight clusters, large groups… With those goals in mind, we then let the models know the intention of the project. Every position and every step in the process is planned out in advance. On the day of a shoot, we’ll have assistants on the floor who communicate with me and the other photographers positioned above the models, relaying directions as we fine-tune the arrangement of bodies within each shape.

With that said, because everyone is a volunteer, there are things that we’ll adapt on the day of the shoot. While we have shapes in mind, a lot of the poses evolve spontaneously and organically as the models express themselves within framework of the directions given at the start of the shoot. Models often return, bringing their previous experience. With new models, a shoot may start a little slowly, but then everyone gets into the feel for jumping in and out of groups. A rhythm is established and we move quickly from pose to pose, mixing different models in and out of specific groupings.

© Angelo Musco ‘Sanctuary’ 2016

What themes inspired ‘Sanctuary’ and how did you realise them visually?

While I am interested in natural structures, I wanted to follow up by exploring concepts of safety, security, and community in human-made architecture like the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Additional inspiration came from the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as an architectural representation of humanity’s hubris. In contrast, my tower would be about bringing people together. In the world around me at that time, I felt that everyone was becoming so tribal and disconnected. I wanted bridges of connection and this led to the idea of a city of towers offering protection and connection at the same time. In this piece the structures are made of bodies and the spaces are inhabited with people reacting to their surroundings. A city formed of nude bodies and inhabited by nude people.

© Angelo Musco – details from ‘Sanctuary’ 2016

While the story of Babel turns on culture (in the form of language) as divisive, to me your work suggests a kind of unity in cultural diversity.

In the original story, humankind attempts to reach heaven by building a tower to challenge God’s greatness. In response, God makes all the laborers building the tower speak different languages so they can’t understand one another or work together. Construction ends in chaos. When I began this project, I felt society was fragmenting in a rift of Us versus Them. I wanted my tower to challenge this by showing the strength that comes with diversity. I wanted the models to come from as many different cultures and language groups as my budget could sustain. The shoots for this work were held in Argentina, England, France, German, Italy, Spain, and the USA, involving multi-ethnic volunteers.

You draw on mythological and biblical narratives in your work. Do you see it as having a spiritual or religious dimension?

I don’t want to dictate the audience’s emotional and intellectual relationship with my work. So, if that is the lens through which they appreciate the images, I can understand this. But, while myths and texts like the Bible are spiritual and religious, they are also markers of times and archetypical themes common to everyone. Then again, one might interpret the religious as a search for silence, centrality and monumental solemnity… acceptance and awareness of one’s own being, which are all elements that support my research.

[Left] © Angelo Musco ‘Ovum’ 2013
[Upper Right] © Angelo Musco ‘Gerbera’ from the series ‘Aaru’ 2018
[Lower Right] © Angelo Musco ‘Aves’ 2015

In ‘Aves’ and ‘Aaru’ you recreate the delicate structures of feathers and flowers. What led you in this direction?

Thank you for making this connection between these two projects. Both works celebrate the wonder of natural architecture, though they initially grew from different concepts. The feathers in ‘Aves’ play with the heaviness of thousands of bodies while appearing to float on air. They are the remnants of a former home, a bird’s nest – a testament to moments left behind that suggest memories of warmth, comfort, and security in an earlier life.

The flowers in ‘Aaru’ are inspired by what the early Egyptians believe to be a heavenly garden to which the Chosen ascend after death. Both flowers and feathers were strong symbols for the Egyptians. They believed the judgement of your mortal life took the form of a scale where a person’s heart was weighted against a feather. Only those with hearts were lighter than the feather could join family and friends in the heavenly garden. Those with heavy hearts were not so fortunate. It is a very poetic way to imagine the culmination and merit of a life lived. Ironically, I created the feathers before I discovered the Egyptian myth.

© Angelo Musco – detail from ‘The Land of Scars’ 2022

‘Land of Scars’ takes an autobiographical turn. How did it begin?

I found myself in a very dark place in my life, questioning the truth in my own work. The Egyptian story of those people with hearts heavier than a feather really had me questioning everything around me. What happened to people with heavy hearts? I felt the need for change and quiet. So, I unplugged from New York and went to the western states of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. I spent several days hiking in silence through the canyons. In these large warm spaces, away from the cold and familiar, I became inspired by everything around me. I saw a way to process and share the darkness in my heart.

What led you to choose a rock face as the form for the final image?

I found the natural landscapes awe inspiring. The stratification of time held in the rock faces, canyons, and valleys felt like the sedimented emotions of my life layered upon each other. For me, it was a key. A way for me not only to share my own pain but to include the stories of people who have helped to shape my life. Many of those who have collaborated on this project as models have affected me profoundly over the years: old friends, family, ex-lovers, past models, people important in my life. They are living deep and emotional journeys of their own and I hoped that in the making of this work they would be willing to share their own scars, both emotional and physical.

© Angelo Musco ‘The Land of Scars’ 2022

How was this realised in the final work?

Thinking of those with heavy hearts led me to explore ideas of rock and stone. It was a full-circle moment in the Grand Canyon. Ten years earlier I had worked on ‘Tehom’. It was as if those figures were no longer swimming through water but had dried into and become held by the rocks. The figures are reaching outwards into the light. Yet they cannot escape the way we hold onto our emotional lives, the bedrock of who we are, the foundation of our being.

This is different from my earlier work. Here, the scale of the bodies is such that you can see faces, expressions; feel this collective sharing of emotion. And this is the first time I have included my own body in my work.

How did it feel to make this piece?

On one level it tells the story of my life, but it also acts like a daily diary of the more than four years of its creation. It was a little scary at first to share my pain. Scarier still to reach out to past friends and lovers who might reject my invitation for them to pose for this work. It became easier once we crossed that bridge and, when participants felt comfortable enough to share their own scars with me, I found it incredibly life affirming.

© Angelo Musco ‘The Land of Scars’ – trailer for the documentary film 2023
[Note: there is a black screen for the first twenty seconds of this video.]

This piece is not just about my story, my scars, but also those of my family, friends, and lovers past and present, as well as the contributions of many volunteer models. Thinking about this, I felt a viewer of the artwork may not be able to understand all of these interwoven stories. So, I made a documentary film that shares this information, while also introducing the voices of those involved.

What are you working on now?

People often wonder, me included, how life may have gone if one had taken a left at this corner instead of a right, or taken that job, made that phone call, or any other seemingly inconsequential choice. Coming off ‘The Land of Scars’ and bringing together all the people who helped shape my life, I was trying to imagine how it might have been if I hadn’t met these specific people at those specific moments. I love the idea of the butterfly effect, that the beating of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the globe can create changes in the air that end up as a hurricane on the other. Cause and effect, the transference of energy, what if this thing never happened…? So, that has been my research lately. The project will include the symbolic presence of a butterfly and pieces representing the possible consequences of its wingbeat.

In making this work over the past seventeen years, what have you learned about yourself that you did not previously know?

Realising the vastness of the path I was on, I have cultivated a growing trust in my own process, allowing it to guide me; to be carried forward by the momentum of the work itself. It has allowed me to explore uncharted territories within myself, and to embrace the uncertainty that comes with artistic growth. Through this process, I have not only deepened my artistic practice but also cultivated a greater sense of trust and surrender in all aspects of my life.

© Angelo Musco – detail from ‘Gerbera’ from the series ‘Aaru’ 2018

Biographical Notes

Angelo Musco was born in Naples, Italy, in 1973. In 1994, he received a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree (magna cum laude) in fine art from the University of Naples. He migrated to the USA on 8 December 1997 – a significant date which, in the Italian calendar, is the Day of the Immaculate Conception. He has presented sixteen major solo exhibitions and performances, and featured in over eighty group shows in North and South America, Europe, and Oceania, including those at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art and the Venice Biennale. In 2002, he won the Image Digital Art Award. He lives in New York City and works internationally.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.